The aim of this book is to examine the status of tradition in the contemporary world, through a critical engagement with the recent social theory of Anthony Giddens on the emergence of a ‘post-traditional society’ using as a case-study, the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organisation, a millenarian South Asian New Religious Movement, aims to examine the ways in which forms of tradition not only persist but also flourish in the contemporary world, and the manner in which they are drawn on and (re) created by individuals in their ongoing construction of self-identity.
John Walliss is a lecturer in sociology at Liverpool Hope University, UK. His research interests are situated broadly at the intersection of the sociology of religion and social theory. Since completing his Ph.D. in 2000, he has published works on several topics, including ‘fringe archaeology’, relationships between the living and the dead within contemporary Spiritualism, and the secularisation of weddings in the UK. His current research, stemming from his recent book ‘Apocalyptic Trajectories:
Millenarianism and Violence in the Contemporary World’, is examining millenarian/apocalyptic groups, particularly where they have been involved in violent incidents. He is also co-editing several collections of essays focusing on the relationship between the study of religion and social theory, and the uses of apocalyptic texts in religious groups and popular culture.
Religion and Late Modernity
In many ways there is a fundamental link between sociology and religion. The central issues within the discipline, the problem of meaning and social order, are intrinsically bound up with religion. For example, religion carries out the ‘repair work’ when social order breaks down as well as providing the symbols and values that bind a society together (Turner, 1999). Indeed, in some instances different religions may provide symbols and values that can fundamentally divide a society, such as in Northern Ireland or the Balkans.
Religion, or more precisely the study of religion, is also important to sociology as a discipline not only because the ‘Founding Fathers’ concerned themselves with it (and thus it is of historical interest); but because in doing so they located it as an important feature in the formation and, in some ways, the persistence of modem societies. Thus, for Weber, the this-worldly asceticism of Calvinism was instrumental to the emergence of Capitalist modernity; for Marx, religion (as false consciousness) was one important factor in the persistence of that social order; whilst for Durkheim religion was itself society writ large. Indeed, from this latter position one could perhaps argue that sociology could be seen as religious studies!
Over the course of the last century, however — possibly as a result of the growing academic division of labour, possibly as a result of the belief that western societies are increasingly secular — there was a gradual divorce between sociology and religion. This was manifested in two significant ways. Primarily, mainstream sociology did not address itself to the place of religion in society. Thus, whilst some social theorists have made references to religion (see, for example, Berger, 1990; Gellner, 1992), it is difficult to name more than a handful of social theorists of stature who have addressed religion in any depth. Secondly, the sociology of religion increasingly became a ‘theoretical side-show’ (Turner, 1999; see also Beckford, 1985), focusing on insular debates such as secularisation or Church-Sect- Cult typologies, and did not address itself to wider debates or, more importantly, relate wider debates within the social sciences to its subject matter. Indeed, in some quarters there was a marked hostility to the ‘mainstream’ and a keenness to concentrate instead on the perceived strengths of the sub-discipline — such as its emphasis on subjectivism. This ethos was perhaps best summed up in Roy Wallis and Steve Bruce’s late-1980s assessment of the British contribution to the sociology of religion:
Nevertheless, in recent years there has been the beginnings of ‘partial re- synchronization’ between the disciplines in two key ways (Beckford, 2000). Firstly, there is growing interest in aspects of contemporary religiosity within more mainstream work — typically in forms of fundamentalism’ or religious pastiche and pluralism (see, for example, Bauman, 1997; Castells, 1997). Secondly, partly as a reaction to the above, sociologists of religion and religious studies scholars have begun to explore the relationship between religion and issues within social theory. To give but a few examples, there have been explorations of the ‘religious dimension’ within the work of contemporary social theorists (see, for example, Carette, 1999; Carette et a!., 1999. Vattimo. 1999), responses to the manner in which religion is discussed within social theory (Beckford, 1992, 1996; Mellor, 1993; Walliss, 2001), discussions of the relationship between the ‘postrnodern condition’ and religion at the general level (Flanagan and Jupp, 1996; Heelas et a!., 1998; Lyon, 2000), as well as at the level of individual manifestations of contemporary spirituality — see, for example, Lyon (1993) and Heelas (1996e) on the New Age Movement.
On the whole, it is still too early to see whether this exchange will be a fruitful endeavour or whether, in the hands of social theorists, religion will become merely another cultural phenomenon — ‘an exotic, playful or curious feature of the present- day cultural kaleidoscope’ (ibid., p. 18) — and whether, as a result, little or no attention will be paid to it in its own right. In other words, there is the fear that religion has been made interesting to social scientists again — but for questionable reasons’ (ibid.). ‘There is also concern over the validity of specific social theorists’
discussions of contemporary religiosity and, as a result, the belief that such theories have to be modified — in some cases significantly — in order for them to be of any use to the study of contemporary religiosity. In this book my aim is to contribute to this growing debate; to build a bridge between the disciplines of social theory, the sociology of religion and religious studies.
More specifically, I intend to connect issues within the study of contemporary religiosity to wider debates within the social sciences generally. In doing so, I also hope to both illuminate some of the difficulties encountered when ‘abstract conceptual elaboration, and vague social philosophising’ is applied to ‘the real world’ as well as offer a way of theorising about the status of contemporary religiosity that does not refer directly to the notion of secularisation; an approach that does not ask, for example, whether the proliferation of New Religious Movements (NRMs) signals a retreat of the forces of secularisation or whether they should be read as its symptoms. Indeed, stemming from what I said previously about the historical marginalisation of the sociology of religion, [wish in particular to avoid the partisan, and frankly boring, nature of the secularisation debate as it has developed over the last few decades.
More specifically, my aim is to critique the idea of ‘tradition’ as it is utilised within the detraditionalisation debate through the discussion of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork conducted with a contemporary NRM, the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University. I will argue that within social theory ‘tradition’ has always been deployed as a binary opposite to whatever is defined as ‘modernity’ and that if it is to be used at all and mean anything, we need a more nuanced understanding. I hope to provide this through the development of Philip Mellor’s (1993) conceptualisation of ‘reflexive traditions’. Mellor argues particularly against the view put forward by, amongst others, Anthony Giddens that tradition is inherently un-reflexive and static. While accepting that reflexivity in the late modern world has become more systematic and extensive than in the past, Mellor argues that reflexivity — the constant, ongoing revision of knowledge and social behaviour on the basis of new information — has always to some extent been a characteristic of religious traditions. Moreover, despite the reflexivity within the late modern world, the normative features of traditions still play a significant role. Indeed, ‘individuals still choose to place themselves within [religious traditions] in order to structure their belief and activity with reference to overarching norms’ (ibid., p. 120).
In this way, this book will •be concerned with two ‘responses’ to late modernity. Firstly, how the Brahma Kumaris have responded to Late Modernity — how they have transformed themselves over the course of the last century — and, secondly, using this as evidence, I will respond to the Late Modernity/post- traditional society thesis. In other words, to adapt Karl Popper’s famous analogy, taking the description of the white swan of ‘tradition’ provided by commentators, my analysis will be an attempt to show that the ones on the particular pond that they discussing are in fact black ones. Having done so, if I may stretch the analogy to breaking point, I then intend to catch one in order to examine close-up how it differs from the swans described.
Structure of the Book
Chapters one and two form the broad theoretical basis of the book. In chapter one I trace the relationship between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ within social theory from the ‘founding fathers’ of the discipline to a range of contemporary analyses. In doing so, I argue that historically, tradition has always been a residual category; a conceptual (and typically unfavourable) binary opposite to what was (usually favorably) described as modernity. Thus, where, for example, modernity was characterised by rationality, progress and was forward-looking, tradition and the traditional were seen as all that was ignorant, dogmatic, superstitious and backward-looking; ‘a ghost from the past we must exorcise for history to move forward’ to quote Marx (cited in Soares, 1997, p. 10). Having looked at its theoretical antecedents I then turn to Paul Heelas’ (1996d) notion of detraditionalisation — the shift from external voices of authority to the voice of authority that comes from ‘within’ the individual — and examine the ‘radical’ version of this thesis put forward by three authors in particular: Ulrich Beck on the Risk Society’ and ‘reflexive modernisation’, Anthony Giddens on Late Modernity and the emergence of a ‘post-traditional’ social order and Zygmunt Bauman’s theorisation of Post modernity. Finally, I advance a definition of ‘tradition’ that is faithful to these authors’ work which may form the basis of my critique in the following chapters.
In chapter two I begin to discuss the detraditionalisation thesis in relation to contemporary religiosity through an examination of the New Age Movement. At first glance, I will argue, it would appear that the New Age points to a situation of radical detraditionalisation in that there is an emphasis on the emergence Of a ‘New Age’ as well as, is in varying amounts, the rejection of the institutions and belief structures associated with the ‘old’ (for example, organised religion, instrumental rationality and scientific materialism). In the place of such external voices of authority, authority comes to lie in the ‘self’; truth, spiritual or otherwise, ultimately ‘lies within’. However, somewhat contradictorily, central to this transformation of the self and the world is the utilisation, maintenance and construction of a variety of traditions, a situation that points more towards a coexistence between the forces of detraditionalisation and those of retraditionalisation.
This takes three main forms. Primarily, New Agers draw on a variety of traditions as sources of inspiration in the spiritual quest, such traditions providing ‘seekers with a spiritual core around which they can orbit, picking up whichever rays of enlightenment they feel hit the mark, or resonate with their own inner truth’ (Storm, 1991, p. 191). However, on another level, New Agers may be seen to draw on such traditions as much for justification as for inspiration, justifying certain practices, for example, by linking them with the beliefs and practices of ancient (but perhaps more spiritually advanced) civilisations, such as the ancient Egyptians, Mayans and Ceks. As well as such occurrences of ‘tradition’ utilisation and maintenance, one may also cite incidences of the (re)creation of tradition amongst New Agers. Indeed, many of the traditions drawn on by New Agers are themselves ‘invented traditions’, in the Hobsbawnian sense of “‘traditions” which appear or claim to be old..,[but are in fact] quite recent in origin and sometimes invented’ (Hobsbawm, 1982, p. 1).
All this, I will argue, points to a coexistence, if not a dynamic interaction, between, on the one hand, what the authors discussed in the first chapter would see as ‘tradition’ and, on the other, reflexivity. However, according to the radical detraditionalisation thesis, reflexivity and tradition are mutually exclusive phenomena and, going further, according to Anthony Giddens (1990, p. 38), tradition that requires legitimisation or is characterised by reflexivity is not ‘real’ tradition but rather ‘tradition in sham clothing’. Rejecting this view, I argue that Mellor’s notion of ‘reflexive traditions’ offers a more fruitful way of examining this dynamic interaction between ‘tradition’ and personal reflexivity and, in the following chapters, deploy it as a hermeneutic tool to examine the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University along three main axes.
In chapters three and four, I focus on the emergence and historical development of both the University and its theodicy. Central to this will be the claim that the University’s world-orientation/response has developed over the seventy or so years of their existence from a position of world-rejection to what I term world- ambivalence (Walliss, 1999). Its early outlook, founded on the visions of its founder, was characterised by the belief that it was necessary to separate from the outside world, a world which, the founder claimed, was soon to be destroyed through war and various calamities The Brahma Kumaris’ task was, he claimed, to undergo ‘death-in-life’, to renounce their families and their lives outside the group, as a necessary preparation for their lives as deities in the post-apocalyptic kingdom. However, over the course of the last century, this world-rejecting ethos began to give way to a newer one of liberalism towards the world. Where they had originally sought to escape the corruption and, perhaps more importantly, the persecution of the outside world, beginning in the 19505 the Brahma Kumaris began a vigorous internationalisation programme involving various forms of proselytising activity and, more recently, an active involvement with international organisations such as the United Nations and UNESCO.
Nevertheless, despite this seeming interest in ‘the world’, the University’s outlook, whilst becoming more world-accommodating or even world-affirming, still retains a strong emphasis on millenarian world- rejection. The University thus operates with what I term an orientation of world- ambivalence. By this I mean that it appears to entail two distinct and unresolved orientations toward the world. Primarily, the University’s whole worldview is based on the visions of its founder, the central of these being the end of the world by apparent nuclear holocaust or environmental catastrophe, this been seen as essential, desirable and indeed pre-determined in the nature of things. However, on the other hand, to cite one writer on the Brahma Kumaris, ‘there is the spectacle of a University which has the word “spiritual” written into its very name becoming increasingly involved in frenetic activity on behalf of the world that is deemed to be beyond redemption in its present form’ (Whaling, 1995, p. 15). Similarly, as I examine in chapter four, the organisation that once referred to membership as ‘death-in-life’ now, whilst still speaking in such terms to some extent, offers ‘success in life’ or ‘empowerment in life’ to outsiders through courses in, amongst other things, meditation, ‘positive thinking’, ‘stress-free living’ and ‘self-esteem’.
In chapter five I shift the level of analysis to focus on the University’s membership and how this world-ambivalence is manifested amongst those who attend the University’s events. In particular, my aim is to examine the different membership patterns found within the University and, in particular, the role that the University’s theodicy plays in the social identity of those who attend its events. On this basis, I distinguish broadly between four main ‘ideal type’ membership patterns on the basis of their respective goal of involvement, their self-conception and, finally, the nature of their social identity.
Instrumental Users are drawn to the University through its courses in positive thinking and stress-free living and are typically seeking a method to alleviate the symptoms of physical ailments or to find a successful means of coping with stress or self-esteem issues. Stemming from this, their self-conception is more materialistic and, indeed, many are often ignorant of the University’s basic beliefs despite even, in some cases, their long involvement with it. This is equally the case with the second membership type that I discuss, Eclectic Users, although there are important differences between both. Whilst both are motivated by a desire for self- improvement, eclectic users differ from instrumental users by expressing this goal in more spiritual or philosophical terms. For them, relieving stress, becoming more centred or building self-esteem are not ends in themselves, but rather steps on a long term process of self-development or, put in spiritual terms, developing their ‘Higher-Self’. Similarly, whilst eclectic users’ sense of social identity is again highly unlikely to be influenced by the University’s collective identity, unlike with instrumental users, this is not the result of ignorance or a lack of interest. Rather, it stems from their epistemologically individualistic attitude to the various traditions that they draw on, combine and utilise in their spiritual quest. The social identity of the final two membership styles that I examine — Spiritual Searchers and interpretative Drifters — in contrast, is more likely to be influenced by the University’s theodicy. For these membership types, it takes on the status of an external voice of authority, providing not only a salvational system but also the basis of a spiritual life narrative. As a result, through the process of conversion, biography is reinterpreted in the light of the University’s theodicy and there is a merging of personal goals and self-identity with those of the University. In sum, a distinction is drawn between those seeking to improve their lifestyle and those, in varying degrees, seeking the spiritual life. Broadly this distinguishes between those individuals for whom the Brahma Kumaris’ theodicy serves as a lifestyle sector or, at the most, pan of their reflexive biography, and those for whom it serves as the basis of biography.
In ‘chapter six, I explore the three main issues that I have raised in the preceding chapters in relation to a single concrete example, the University’s millenarianism. This, I will argue, acted as a form of Nietzschian ‘imaginary vengeance’ against the outside world as a response to the persecution it received from the surrounding community during its early years. Moreover, the manner in which this millenarianism has developed historically closely mirrors the University’s changing relationship with the ‘outside’ world — from one of mutual rejection to one of ambivalence — and continues to provide a fundamental site of reflexivity at both the institutional level and amongst the University’s membership.
Turning first to the institutional level, the University manages and ‘negotiates’ the different (world-rejecting and world-affirming) ‘millenniums’ that it promotes using two main, related techniques. First, there is the differentiation and organisational separation of those instrumental, world-affirming activities that are open to all and those world-rejecting activities that are reserved for committed members only. For example, an individual may access the University’s web page, attend public lectures, the various courses and workshops without having to publicly demonstrate their faith. However, in order to progress to the next stage of membership — the visit to the University’s headquarters in Rajasthan during the period where its deceased founder communicates via a trance-medium — they have to not only demonstrate their commitment by following the recommended lifestyle but also, more importantly, be seen to be doing so by the University. This is intrinsically linked with the second technique; the utilisation and negotiation of different metaphors or readings of the University’s theodicy at the different events and in the different types of literature in relation to its intended (core or periphery) audience. For example, amongst committed, core members ‘the tradition is lived [and expressed] without apology, translation or dilution’ (Howell and Nelson, 1998, no pagination). However, on the periphery, the terminology of the New Age is deployed and the University is keen to market itself at Mind, Body and Spirit fairs and the like. Here, the destruction of the world prophesied by the University’s founder is repackaged as ‘the New Age’ or ‘World Transformation’ whilst the University’s emphasis on undergoing ‘death-in-life’ gives way to an emphasis on personal empowerment.
Next, among the University’s membership one finds three broad types of explanation of the relationship between the Brahma Kumaris’ theodicy and the outside world; these being deployed in different contexts and with different audiences. First, in some instances members will employ a dogmatic distinction between the two sets of beliefs in terms of their absolute truth or falsehood. In other words, they accept the dissonance between what they believe and what others outside the University believe and use it to argue that one is inherently true and the other, by definition, false. Thus, on the one hand there is the false, scientific, historical, archaeological knowledge of the outside world and on the other there is the University’s revealed knowledge. This then allows them to argue that what appears to be falsehood to those outside the University is actually the Truth and vice versa, although only those within the University are aware of this. Second, in other situations members will present their beliefs as objectively true, not by drawing on the self-authority of the tradition, but by making reference to personal experience, scientific rationalism or other forms of culturally accepted academic discourse. Thus, as in the New Age more generally, certain authors (e.g. Jung, Huxley, Blake, Maslow) and certain theories (‘New Science’) are ‘name-dropped’ to support claims regarding self-development and human potential. Finally, in some instances members will argue that ultimately all knowledge is relative and a matter of personal faith. In other words, little or no emphasis is placed on the inherent truth of one position vis-à-vis the inherent falsehood of another. Rather, such a distinction is seemingly abandoned in favour of a radical perspectivism where truth exists solely within the eye of the beholder.
In chapter six I also examine another rendition of the University’s millenarianism put forward by a group named the Advance Party. This group is made up of predominantly of ex-members of the University and are highly critical of what they allege to be the increasing worldliness and corruptness of the University hierarchy. The University, they claim on their website, has ‘become a true Ravan Rajya where pomp and show and grandeur are given preference over true Godly knowledge’. However, at a deeper level the Advance Party’s critique is aimed at the Brahma Kumaris’ theodicy and the manner in which they allege its millenarianism has been misunderstood and misrepresented. In particular, the Advance Party radically re-interpret this millenarianism in an attempt to return to what they claim to be its lost, ‘true’ original form. This involves, amongst other things, setting a specific date for the destruction of the world — 2008 — and the emergence of the millennial kingdom — 2036. This level of clarity, however, effectively renders the Advance Party’s eschatology liable to the problems that have historically beset millenarian groups who provide a specific date for the apocalypse and who have to then rationalise the non-event afterwards to themselves and the outside world. Drawing on a range of studies on the phenomenon of failed prophecy, I conclude the chapter by speculating on the possibility that a number of prophetic failures may have been instrumental in the University’s shift in world orientation and the Advance Party’s schism in the mid 1970s. I also offer some possible scenarios for how the University and its millenarianism might develop over the next few decades.
Finally, in chapter seven I conclude by relating the various strands of my discussion of the Brahma Kumaris back to the detraditionalisation thesis. On this basis, I argue that the world-ambivalence that I have discussed in the previous four chapters could in some sense be usefully reframed as a tension — or, perhaps, an ongoing dialogue — within the University between the forces of detraditionalisation and those of tradition maintenance and rejuvenation. Thus, on the one hand, one sees within the University the persistence of tradition as a source of moral and identity-conferring authority whilst, on the other, the manner in which this is becoming increasingly a site of personal reflexivity and bricolage. Similarly, one may note the ongoing re-creation of tradition within the University in terms of how it is elaborating on its theodicy in various ways, not least in the development of courses dealing with lifestyle issues.
In conclusion, I argue that the tradition/reflexivity dynamic should be seen less as a dualism and more of dialectic, and that any attempt — as in the radical detraditionalisation thesis — to analyse this dynamic from the former position is inadequate of presenting more than an analytical caricature. On this basis, I argue that the study of contemporary traditions needs to move beyond the ‘either/or’ of the detraditionalisation debate and to address instead three important issues: the interaction of ‘tradition’ and reflexivity within contemporary traditions; the changing nature of tradition in the contemporary world; and, finally, the continuing, if not growing, appeal of a variety of traditions to contemporary individuals.
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